(The following is a reflection that I wrote for 11 November 2012 church bulletin.)
Every year mainline Protestant churches commemorate the 16th century Reformation movement on 31st October. As this year’s Reformation Day approaches, I began to wonder, what’s the point in commemorating it?
If I’m not too far off, I think it has to do with God’s authority and Word in relation to the world.
God’s Authority and Word
Prior to the Reformation, almost all of western Christendom didn’t have the concept that people can be Christ’s disciple apart from the recognition by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). The Reformation has overturned this. Therefore to be a Reformed or Protestant in the 16th century Europe is to be someone who affirms your own Christian discipleship regardless whether the RCC recognizes you or not.
Many in the present have criticized this Reformed-recognition as individualistic, relativistic, subjectivist and anarchist: how could anyone possess the authority to declare him/herself as Christian without reference to some objective institution, like the RCC? And, wouldn’t such recognition lead to pluralism, a situation where it is difficult to know which is true because everyone has a claim that differs from everyone else? (Imagine that everyone has his/her own definition of ‘Singaporean’; so what constitutes true Singaporean?)
To the Reformers, whether someone has the authority to declare him/herself a Christian is not decided by RCC or anyone else, but by what God has said and done through Jesus Christ and his earliest disciples. Since what God has said and done through Jesus Christ and his earliest disciples are best testified in the Old and New Testament, the Reformers thought it necessary to call for ‘sola scriptura’, which literally means ‘by scripture alone’, as the ultimate principle to adjudicate who has the authority to make truth-claims about Christianity, including one’s identity as Christ’s disciple. As John Calvin wrote in Institutes of the Christian Religion (translated by Ford Lewis Battles, edited by John T. McNeil):
Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. (Book 1, Chapter 6:2, emphasis added)
Now daily oracles are not sent from heaven, for it pleased the Lord to hallow his truth to everlasting remembrance in the Scriptures alone. Hence the Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there the living words of God were heard. (Book 1, Chapter 7:1, emphasis added)
We have taught that the knowledge of God, otherwise quite clearly set forth in the system of the universe and in all creatures, is nonetheless more intimately and also more vividly revealed in his Word. (Book 1, Chapter 10:1, emphasis added)
This proposal is not without precedence. Jesus himself invoked this principle—referring to the scripture of his day, the Old Testament—to show that he was indeed the divine Son. (John 5:39)
The Reformers held that the recognition of our own Christian identity is decided not between individualism versus communitarianism, or relativism versus objectivism, or institutionalism versus anarchism. To them, it is decided by God’s authority as testified in God’s Word. The way to move beyond pluralism is to go back to the scripture.
However I need to make a qualification here. Sola scriptura does not mean that Christians read only the Bible to grow in faith and understanding. Christians, particularly those identified with the Reformed tradition, are among the foremost in engaging non-Christians, not least with other Christians. This resembles what apostle Paul did at Athens (Acts 17:16-34) and Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). John Calvin himself read widely. It may surprise some that his first academic book was not on theology but a commentary on Roman philosopher Seneca’s work De Clementia. As Calvin advised in his commentary on Titus 1:12, “It is superstitious to refuse to make any use of secular authors. For since all truth is of God, if any ungodly man has said anything true, we should not reject it, for it also has come from God.” The revival of Christians’ engagement with God’s Word during the Reformation is not limited only to doctrines but also in relation to other created goods in God’s world.
Therefore the Reformation movement was not merely of religious nature. Part of the reason is the fact that God’s authority and Word is not domestic, or relevant only to religious practices and rituals. When the Holy Spirit empowers us to proclaim God’s authority and Word, we are testifying God’s sovereignty over all realms of reality (Colossians 1:15-20). Hence God’s Word is not attesting only to the things lie within the four walls of the church. Rather, it is God’s summoning the whole world back to himself through us.
Besides, in the 16th century, the RCC was the highest authority in the Holy Roman Empire. The social-political structures back then, like many in the present, were intimately bound up with theology and vice versa. Therefore the Reformation’s usurping of the RCC was not merely a religious matter but disruptive at all levels of the European society.
As Harvard University’s historian Robert Scribner recounted the social condition of 16th century Germany, the place where Martin Luther’s ignited the Reformation movement:
At the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century, the [Holy Roman] Empire experienced enormous problems of order and public peace, expressed in its inability to deal with a complex range of issues on which firm action across its territories would have benefited all: control over banditry and feud, the lack of a uniform coinage or excise system, the absence of an efficient and effective legal system capable of resolving numerous political, economic and social conflicts. [...] In the towns it was clear from the earliest days, for example in Wittenberg, that demands for religious change could be linked to social and political grievances and have far-reaching consequences. This made the initial movements a form of social dynamite, requiring only the right kind of detonator to set off a larger explosion of discontent… By 1523 it was clear throughout Germany that the ferment of religious dissent had become a broad-meshed demand for ‘reformation’, a radical alteration in the religious, social and sometimes political features of contemporary life. (Robert Scribner, ‘Germany,’ in The Reformation in National Context, eds. Robert Scribner, Roy Porter, and Mikulas Teich [UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994], pp.8, 16-17. Emphasis added)
It is therefore a mistake to think that the Reformers were overturning only medieval religious practices. By proclaiming God’s authority and Word, the Reformers were also resisting the oppressive governing policy established and sustained by the socio-political machinery controlled by tyrants in vestment.
Looking at what it was, the Reformation Day stands as the bastion of hope in the face of pluralism. God is constantly summoning the whole world in its multiplicity back to Himself. It is in God’s authority and Word that we are recognized as Christ’s disciples. It is by going back to the scripture that tyrants are overthrown. In other words, the Reformation Day testifies to a time when God’s authority and Word have disrupted the ways of man for the transformation of God’s world to take place from within. Isn’t such a day worth remembering?